Funding for California schools is like the stacked-wood block-tower game, Jenga. Over the last thirty years, we pushed out blocks of money, leaving unfilled holes that destabilize schools. While the structures still stand, many educators and parents wonder whether the next block will be the one that topples public education.
Several blocks alone were pushed out by Prop 13, the 1978 voter-approved ballot initiative championed by right-wing, anti-tax zealots Howard Jarvis and Paul Gann. Not only did Prop 13 hollow out property tax revenues for schools, but it also created two-thirds supermajority requirements to raise taxes to fill those holes.
Stripped of realistic options for raising local revenues, school districts used bonds to shore up that leaning tower for the past two decades, because general obligation bonds only require a 55% majority of voters to pass (if it meets other requirements). Because bonds borrow their funds from wealthy investors, funds must be spent on projects that provide tangible collateral to secure the debt. In other words, it is easier in California to borrow from the wealthy than it is to tax them.
It is also more expensive. Poor credit ratings mean that Californians pay $2 for every $1 borrowed. The State budget includes nearly $7 billion annually in debt servicing, of which $2.6 billion is from school bonds. Meanwhile, blocks of funding for non-collateral expenses such as teachers, librarians, nurses, counselors and administrators continue to be pushed out of the tower because they can only be paid through taxes. Propositions 30 and 38 are attempts to fill some of those holes. Although insufficient, they are better than nothing. And they are cheaper.
One hundred six school districts in California have bond measures on this November’s ballot, including four local school districts — Temple City, Whittier City, Covina Valley and Rowland. They deserve serious consideration. As a parent and the former president of the Temple City Schools Foundation, I know first hand that our Measure S will put back a vital block of funding need to shore up our deteriorating school infrastructure. Plans include electrical upgrades, the removal of asbestos and lead paint, and improved heating and cooling systems. Each bond measure makes a worthwhile investment in local communities by local communities, just as the Pasadena Star-News’ October 15th endorsement indicates.
Bonds make sense as a way to finance expensive infrastructure projects over time without overburdening taxpayers with large lump sums. But bonds are inadequate building blocks to fund a statewide education system unless they are accompanied by sufficient general fund revenues. Restricting our investment in education to what wealthy bond investors need for collateral leaves our community’s children with new buildings but few people inside to support learning.
Education funding is incomplete without both taxes and bonds. Unlike Jenga, education is not a game that we can easily reset and rebuild when it topples. We must support both general fund tax increases for schools and bond measures in order to stabilize it.